Making Lab-Grown Leather From Cow Cells—And Inching Toward Production

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VitroLabs is on a mission to create environmentally-friendly, sustainable leather—from cow cells. Launched in 2016, the Milpitas, Cal., company has developed a tissue engineering process that takes a collection of a few cells from cows (potentially ostriches or crocodiles, too), nurtures them and turns them into full thickness hides.

Ingvar Helgason

Brandon Patoc

“We’re growing real animal hides in a lab and transforming them into leather,” says co-founder Ingvar Helgason. He adds that, when he and co-founder Dr. Dusko Ilic produced their first sample, “It felt like science fiction.”

Now Helgason is inching closer to producing a commercialized product. He just closed a Series A financing led by Agonomics to build and scale pilot production, bringing the total amount raised to $46 million. That followed a move into a new 45,000 square foot facility, designed for manufacturing and laboratory space.

VitroLabs is by far not the only company looking to find sustainable alternatives to leather, as well as plastic-based substitutes. Other contenders are using everything from mushrooms to recombinant collagen produced in yeast to accomplish the task.

How It Works

After performing a biopsy on a cow, scientists feed the cells into a nutrient-rich bioreactor. (The cells self-regenerate, according to the company, so the biopsy only needs to be done once). Then, the cells form animal hide-like tissue. After the growth phase, which takes three to four weeks, the hides are shipped out for tanning.

The result, of course, is that animals aren’t harmed. But, also, there’s a significant reduction in the impact on deforestation and carbon emissions.

VitroLabs leather

Adam Dillon

Also there’s the tanning process. It typically uses a great many chemicals, some potentially carcinogenic, along with billions of gallons of water a year, and requires shipping cowhides thousands of miles to tanneries. According to Helgason, working with partners, they’ve developed a process that uses 90% fewer chemicals than the conventional method. Also, he says, cells grow only to the thickness that’s needed during the cultivation process. That simplifies and shortens the tanning process, with a major reduction in the environmental impact.

High School Dropout

Helgason dropped out of high school in his hometown of Reykjavik, Iceland, with his sights set on becoming a fashion designer. In 2006, after various moves, he settled in London and started a fashion company. Then some fur auction houses sought him out, to see whether he could help fix their image problem.

That got Helgason interested in the matter of potential ways to find substitutes for fur and leather, motivated in part by his long-time fascination with science fiction. He threw himself into a period of intense research. “With no knowledge of the technology, I thought, how hard can it be?” he says.

Then after closing down his company in 2015—the business was struggling with cash flow problems—Helgason decided to move to the Bay area. There he started doing more research into the science. When he googled “how to grow skin in a lab”, he came upon work by Ilic. A professor in stem cell science at Kings College London, he was taking his sabbatical and doing research at University of California, San Francisco. Four or five emails later, Illic replied and they set up a 20-minute call. That turned into three hours and, eventually, a partnership and the launch of VitroLabs. Illic returned to London in 2018, but is still an active advisor.

Over the ensuing years, the partners ended up changing the underlying technology a few times as they worked to build an efficient platform with the potential to scale and produce a product that resembled real leather, says Helgason. But, the new cash infusion helps them get closer to the pilot stage. The plan is to scale slowly, with a focus on the luxury market, which entails a lower volume of production than the mass market. “Any technology that’s coming out of a lab starts out with lower volumes and scales up from there,” he says, pointing to the 2016 launch of the Impossible Burger as a case in point.

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